Jaakko Piira
Created by Jorma Napola (1914-2000)

Private eye novels have never been big in Finland. I don't really know why, but I have my suspicions: the private eye is a product of a culture that believes heavily in individualism and the right to take the law into one's hands if necessary. But Finland is pretty much a culture that relies on authority, and on letting someone else take care of things.

Perhaps because of this, private eyes in Finnish literature can be counted with one man's fingers. Reijo Mäki has Jussi Vares, Markku Ropponen has Otto Kuhala, Ari Paulow has Jesse Hackman... and that's about it. Tapani Bagge's Onni Syrjänen is not really a private eye (although by the rules of this site, he qualifiers -- editor). In the seventies there were some writers who dabbled in the genre, like Matti Kokkonen and Totti Karpela, but their legacy has not endured. (One distinctive point in Finnish P.I. novels is that they work pretty well -- if unintentionally -- as parody.)

One notable exception -- and a shining example of a good Finnish private eye novel is Ruuvikierre (1962) by Jorma Napola. The Finnish title might translate as "The Big Screw." I read the novel for the first time just recently, when I was suffering a bad case of stomach complaint.

The private eye hero in the novel is JAAKKO PIIRA, who seems to be closely modeled on Philip Marlowe. He mentions a few times having been in the war and having fought first against the Soviets, then against the Germans. Piira is your typical private eye, tired, lonely, suffering from melancholy, and flirting with alcoholism.

The book starts with Piira complaining that he's got no job. The only company he has (shades of Marlowe) is a spider weaving its web in a corner of his office. He finally a client, though - a coy young lady hires him to check out a tenant in her and her aunt's house who has now disappeared. Piira promises to look into the matter and finds himself tangled up in a web of deceit and blackmail. At one point he even infiltrates a rehab center for lunatic alcoholics to gather evidence. There are couple of murders and some cops who don't really like Piira.

The book was first published in 1962 and won the first prize in the prestigious Big Detective Novel Competition held by WSOY, a large publisher, in 1962. In fact, Napola also won the second prize, but that's another story.

Ruuvikierre has its share of clichés, but if you happen to enjoy these particular clichés, you probably won't mind. There's a strong noirish tone and the style is fittingly hardboiled. Napola also did a nice job of working those American P.I. tropes into Finnish settings, even if at times I found Piira's wisecracking a bit too un-Finnish. You know, we're not really accustomed to people yapping all the time.

There are some implausibilities in the plot: I didn't really buy the rehab center scene, but all in all I really liked the book. Suffice it to say that had this book been published in English, I doubt if many foreign readers would've noticed any difference. Kukkola seems to have some joy when he gets to mention that Napola didn't write another novel. He didn't know it all. A small paperback publisher called Viihdeviikarit (and the man behind it, Kari Lindgren, also the man behind Book Studio and now Book Man) put out in 1981 a novel called Ministeri on murhattu (which translates as "A Minister Has Been Murdered") by Jorma Napola. The back cover revealed that Napola had also won the second prize in the crime novel contest mentioned above, but WSOY didn't want to publish two novels by the same writer (I don't know why they didn't use a pseudonym), so it had remained unpublished for almost 20 years until Viihdeviikarit dug it up. I remember reading the cheap paperback at least twice in my teens.

The books don't really resemble each other, except that both have men of principle in the lead. Neither will back down. The murder in the latter book seems impossible at first, but Napola doesn't give much thought to that and focuses more on bitter human intercourse. The book ends in noirish tones of despair and bitterness, even though it's really nowhere as bleak as Ruuvikierre. It's not as humorous either and the plot is not as intriguing. Ministeri on murhattu seems also to have some tones of the Maigret novels by Simenon.

If you ask me, Napola's second novel, Ministeri on murhattu (which translates as "The Minister Has Been Murdered"), was finally published in 1981, and again, it was a good solid thriller.

Both books deserve to be rediscovered, and Ruuvikierre in particular.

NOVEL

  • Ruuvikierre (1962; translation: "The Big Screw")

RELATED LINKS

Respectfully submitted by Juri Nummelin.


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